Taking alcohol

PERHAPS you’ve seen those alcohol education ads on telly that show consecutive generations of dads usingtheir young sons as beer monkeys at boozy barbecues.

They point out that parents who get on the piss tend to leave big, stubbie-shaped indents on the super-absorbent psyches of their sprogs (as well as highlighting that those 1970s porn-star moustaches really were an evolutionary dead end).

Thing is, not all kiddies of alcohol-abusing parents go on to drink too much themselves. Some develop the reverse problem.

A friend whose folks were miserable, probably irretrievable, drunks rang one night in an absolute state. Usually a strict teetotaller, he’d downed half a beer at a party after a crappy break-up. And he was convinced he was on the slippery slope to crusty suit-wearing, involuntary public urination and alcoholic itinerancy like his oldman.

“It’s all over,” sobbed Dave (not his real name) over the phone. “I’ve taken alcohol.”

The first striking thing about this depressing conversation was my mate’s odd use of the word taken, a term normally associated with evil, illicit drugs, as opposed towarm, friendly and totally harmless social lubricants.

To those of us who regard the phrase “drugs and alcohol” as tautology, however, such linguistic distinctions are self-serving chimeras. How convenient that we’ve come up with a wild and alarming set of verbs for illicit chemical consumption (toking, snorting, dropping, mainlining, Shatner’s Bassooning and so on) whereas alcohol is simply drunk because it’s, you know, not a drug but an innocent beverage.

Yet the only way we’re going to rein in our en masse alcohol abuse is to see booze for what it is: a mind-altering substance that can get us as high, stoned, freaked-out, trippy, spacey, ripped, toasted, smacked up, bombed, loaded, out of it and f—ed up as any other. And — once again, like the rest of the dope family — alcohol really does have the potential to liquidate our health, our lives and our pro footy careers if we don’t use responsibly.

This segues nicely into the second illuminating element of Dave’s story: namely, that imbibing in moderation may be a psychologically healthier alternative to arse-clenching abstinence.
In 1990, American psychologists Jonathan Shedler and Jack Block conducted a hefty, longitudinal study that concluded that adolescents who had engaged in some drug experimentation were much better adjusted than party animals or fanatical just-say-no-ers. Many years later, Block made the more general argument that people who are under-controlled tend to be rash and distractable, while those who are over-controlled are often compulsive and gloomy.

“Thus, although alcoholism, drug abuse and sexual promiscuity may all illustrate an insufficient self-control,” he wrote, “it is alsothe case that teetotallers of alcohol, absolute abstainers from all culturally available drugs, and individuals normatively very late or never to start their sexual lives appear to be rigid individuals leading relatively joyless existences.”

It would be rash, of course, to ignore the health repercussions associated with this honour roll of vices.

But what if the psychological stiffness required for ceaseless self-control extracts similarly insalubrious tolls?

Once again, I can’t help but think of poor old Dave whose teetotalism is not the result of inner strength but of psychological frailty. He has opted out of alcohol not because he dislikes the taste, objects to the hangovers or has calmly considered the health implications but because he lives in mortal fear of becoming an addict. And while he did manage to haul himself back on to the wagon after that one, huge night on the half-a-beer, shrinks keep telling him his inflexible all-or-nothing approach leaves him at terrible risk of seesawing straight from absolute abnegation into utter abandon.

Do not pass go, do not collect the occasional girlie shandy or social snifter.

The morals of this story — that perhaps weneed to indulge in all sorts of things more,less and differently — won’t satisfy anyof the extremists in the drugahol and alcorug debates.

But, as with the ability to enjoy a couple of Cuba Libres before switching to mocktails, the capacity to inhabit an argument’s annoyingly nuanced middle ground also may be a mark of muscular mental health.

- originally published in The Australian on 26-03-2009.

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